If you read one thing today, read “the Plague Years, in Film and Memory”

ACT-UP, as seen by one improbably young participant in its story.

How to Survive a Plague is up for an Academy Award tonight. It’s gripping, one of the best films on HIV/AIDS ever made. Those who have seen it know that this film tells the story from one perspective–ACT-UP’s. Of course, other films deserve to be made, films that tell the story from other angles, and that capture the perspectives of other constituencies and risk-groups. The AIDS story is too big to be captured by any one group’s perspective. I hope to say more at a later time on these points.

Over at the Atlantic, Garance Franke-Ruta has a remarkable essay occasioned by this film. At an improbably young age, she was a key contributor to ACT-UP before moving on to other realms. I’ll let her say more. Here is one snippet:

The first time I saw How to Survive a Plague on the big screen was at its premiere at Sundance in 2011, where it was a selection in the documentary competition. I was a wreck the next day. To say that the movie brought up a lot would be an understatement. Maybe one day I’ll write the story of my life, and how I went from being a high school drop-out who left home two months after turning 16 to a magna cum laude college graduate and journalist after a years-long interlude devoted to fighting pandemic death. But I doubt it. ACT UP made me and then ACT UP unmade me; it taught me to write and argue and speak and know that the world is full of exceptions and you just have to decide you are going to be one of them. But life on the other side of the knowledge of life and death meant also that by the time I was 21 I had seen and felt and experienced so much I became convinced that if I had to process one more thing —one more awful thing—I would just keel over and die. I had reached my limit, which might have been lower than that of some of the group’s other members, because I had no well of fortitude built up over time to fall back on, because, again, I’d barely had any “before” years. What I did have though was health and youth and what too many of my friends did not—a future. And so at a certain point I made a decision to go on with my life. Because I could. But also because I had to. As Ingrid Bergman famously quipped, “Happiness is good health and a bad memory.” Most days I do not at all mind that I have forgotten as much as I have.

P.S. Watching this film, I realize that this documentary form is precisely what should have been done to bring Randy Shilts’s classic book And the band played on to the silver screen.I enjoyed aspects of the resulting movie—e.g. Phil Collins’ turn as an oily bath house owner. Still, turning Shilts’s priceless history into a dramatic celebrity vanity project was unfortunate. Many of the principals are now dead. So that crucial opportunity was lost.

Fortunately Frontline did a nice documentary, the age of AIDS. That’s probably the best we have.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

3 thoughts on “If you read one thing today, read “the Plague Years, in Film and Memory””

  1. Every now and then someone will ask me to recommend a good non-fiction book. The two books I always recommend are “And the Band Played On” and Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters.” You’re right, the film of “And the Band Played On” was a huge disappointment. Thanks for pointing out the Frontline documentary, which I’ve never seen, and Franke-Ruta’s excellent essay.

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